Virginia includes prisoners in next stage of vaccine rollout

Virginia includes prisoners in next stage of vaccine rollout
At the city jail in Richmond, deputies barricaded the parking lot during a protest calling for more inmates to be released as COVID-19 spreads. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Public health officials in Virginia plan to begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates in state prisons and local jails when they begin the next phase of their rollout plan, according to a schedule released this week.

“I’m hoping it’s in days, not months,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran. “We’re anxious for these to begin.”

The virus has spread widely through the state prison system and local jails, sickening thousands and killing at least 50 inmates and staff. But national CDC guidance has been silent on how states should prioritize inmates as they ration vaccines.

Advocacy groups that have been pushing for Northam’s administration to include inmates alongside corrections staff, who the CDC did include in its recommendations for phase 1b, as did Northam’s administration.

“It’s a relief to see this recognition of the high risk faced by incarcerated individuals,” said Shannon Ellis, a lawyer with the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center.

Under the plan released Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Health, prisoners would be given the same priority access to vaccines as frontline workers, including correctional staff; people aged 75 years older; and people living in homeless shelters and migrant labor camps.

“Logistical and operational considerations may result in (for example) correctional workers in a particular facility being vaccinated at the same time as the inmates in the facility,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, the health department’s Deputy Commissioner for Population Health, said in a statement. “Overlap of vaccination of groups is expected, to ensure people in Phase 1B are vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

About 25,000 people are confined in state prisons, more than 7,600 of whom have contracted the virus to date. Local jails around the state hold another 24,000, but there is neither mandatory nor centralized reporting of outbreaks in the facilities.

The Marshall Project, which has tracked the spread of COVID-19 in prison systems around the country, calculates the rate of infections among prisoners in Virginia as more than 500 percent higher than the population at large.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.